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World War I: Battle of Rafa

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Conflict:

The Battle of Rafa was part of the Sinai & Palestine Campaign of World War I (1914-1918).

Armies & Commanders:

Allies

  • Lieutenant General Philip Chetwode
  • 5 brigades

Ottoman Turks

  • Friedrich Freiherr Kress von Kressenstein
  • 2,000 men

Date:

Chetwode captured Rafa on January 9, 1917.

Battle of Rafa Overview:

In the wake of their defensive stand at Romani in August 1915, British Commonwealth forces under General Sir Archibald Murray began pushing across the Sinai Peninsula. Due to the harsh desert terrain, the pace of the advance was governed by the construction of a railroad and water pipeline to support the troops. Reaching El Arish, mounted forces under Major General Sir Henry Chauvel captured Turkish fortifications at Magdhaba on December 23rd. Eager to complete the conquest of the Sinai, Murray sought to force the Turks out of Rafa, near the Egyptian Sinai-Palestine border.

On January 8, 1916, Murray assigned this task to Chauvel's Anzac Mounted Division. The commander of the Desert Mounted Column, Lieutenant General Philip Chetwode, rode with Chauvel's men to oversee the assault. Near Rafa, the Turks had constructed a defensive position at El Magruntein, anchored on a rise known as Hill 255. Building four redoubts, they placed one atop the hill and the others to the west, south, and east. These were dubbed redoubts A, B, and C.

Approaching Rafa on the morning of January 9 with the 1st & 3rd Australian Light Horse Brigades, the 5th Yeomanry Brigade, the New Zealand Light Horse Brigade, and three battalions of the Imperial Camel Corps, Chetwode worked to isolate the garrison by cutting the telegraph lines to Gaza. Sending the New Zealanders around to the south, he ordered them to approach the outpost from the east and north, while the Yeomanry Brigade moved in from the west. At 7:00 AM, British horse artillery batteries opened fire on the Turkish redoubts.

Shortly after the shelling commenced, a group of Turks attempted to escape towards Gaza, but were intercepted and captured by the New Zealanders. Moving forward, the British advanced on foot, with Chetwode initially holding two brigades in reserve (3rd Light Horse & 5th Yeomanry). These were soon committed to the battle, as his men surrounded the Turkish fortifications. Advancing across open ground, the assault quickly bogged down as the Turks were able to maintain a high rate of fire. Constantly firing at the enemy parapets, the British began to run low on ammunition early in the afternoon.

As the Australian Mounted Division formed the bulk of the mounted troops in the theater, neither Chetwode nor Chauvel was willing to sustain heavy casualties, particularly as they both believed that the Turks would soon abandon Rafa of their own accord. Alerted to the approach of a Turkish relief force, the two commanders began making plans to fall back to El Arish. As evening approached and the withdraw orders written, several of Chauvel's brigades launched final efforts against the Turks. Charging from the north, three New Zealand regiments attacked the main redoubt on Hill 255.

This was supported by assaults on Redoubt B by the Camel Corps and Redoubt C by the 1st Light Horse Brigade. All three attacks reached the enemy fortifications and succeeded in overcoming the Turkish opposition. Overwhelmed, the Turks began surrendering and all of Rafa was taken in short order.

Aftermath:

The Battle of Rafa cost the Chetwode 71 killed and 415 wounded, while Turkish losses numbered 200 killed, 168 wounded, and 1,434 taken prisoner. Concerned about the Turkish relief column, Chetwode began falling back towards El Arish, leaving two brigades to cover the evacuation of wounded. As a result of Desert Column's success at Magdhaba and Rafa, the Turks became wary of leaving isolated garrisons on the Sinai frontier. As a result, they abandoned positions near El Hassana and Nekhl. Pushing forward, Murray began making preparations to attack the main Turkish lines near Gaza.

Selected Sources

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